Jamaica is blessed with a tropical maritime climate, so we enjoy easy year-round access to freshly caught seafood. Several mom-and-pop stalls and restaurants will prepare this seafood to order, but a few stops have become cultural landmarks cemented in the homes and hearts of most Jamaican households and are even marketed to foreigners as must-see stops. Like most Kingstonians, my usual seafood stops are Port Royal, Hellshire or Port Henderson Road due to their closer proximity, but I’ve always heard of Little Ochie Seafood Restaurant in Alligator Pond, South Manchester. Why? Well, they are said to be one of the best and the oldest so Little Ochie has become somewhat of a household name. Thus, I was more than excited to turn what was originally intended to be a Treasure Beach stop into dining at this seafood stalwart and quintessential Jamaican restaurant.
Little Ochie was opened in 1989 by Evrol “Blackie” Christian and grew over time to become the spot for residents of Manchester and St. Elizabeth to satisfy a craving for authentic Jamaican seafood– that enticing steam fish and bammy, fried fish drenched with vinegar and pickled onions, freshly-caught curried shrimp and garlic lobster. Located out of the way on a fisherman’s beach far from the nearest town, Little Ochie is a rustic laid-back kind of restaurant which welcomes sandy slippers, short shorts and tank tops. Old boats have been retrofitted with thatched roofs, raised on stilts and outfitted with benches and tables for seating.
Roughly 45 minutes’ drive from Mandeville, Little Ochie Restaurant is located in the Alligator Pond District in south Manchester on the border of St. Elizabeth. In fact, the left turn from the highway A2 which takes you to Gutters Main Road, a straight road which will take you to the restaurant, is actually located right next to the sign for crossing parish borders into St. Elizabeth. Gutters Main Road winds in and out of both parishes but Google Maps has the restaurant’s map marker as Manchester and most sources seem to also agree on this. Thus, I chose to include this destination under the Manchester tab.
Alligator Pond lies at the foot of the Don Figueroa Mountains to the north-east, some 35 km from Mandeville. The name ‘Alligator Pond’ is derived from the shape of the mountain range which looks like an alligator’s back when viewed from the coast.
Look out for the signs which will tell you where to make the right turn to the restaurant once you enter the district of Alligator Pond. There is free parking available in a decent-sized lot. If you’re only interested in checking out the beach instead of dining, none would be the wiser. Feel free to park and do just that, but that would be a waste of a trip from Mandeville, wouldn’t it?
The Restaurant & Beach
The first thing that hit me as I alighted from the car was the strong gusty sea breeze that caressed my face but unforgivingly whipped my curls into a frenzy. There were pelicans flying overhead by the dozens and I noticed that the crowd was almost 100% local. Don’t expect excellent customer service. No one is working for tips, and there’s hardly any wait staff. This is the kind of place where you’re better off ordering ahead (if someone picks up the phone), or where you should order before you’re starving. Enter the main restaurant where the food is cooked, order then pay before your food is prepared. Don’t be surprised to wait as long as 10 minutes for someone to take your order, and if you want fish, they’ll open a freezer and show you the day’s catch of snapper, grunt or parrot fish for you to select your pick. The overall time from placing orders to getting your meal may take an hour or even more. They serve just about everything by the way done in every style you can think of: fish, crab, lobster, shrimp and even sea-puss (octopus).
Parrotfish consume the algae and seaweeds which carpet our local coral reefs and can result in their death by shading out the light they need. Secondly, they play a crucial role in creating white sand by passing out undigested coral fragments. Only the parrotfish does this unique job, so say NO to parrotfish! Currently there’s no ban in place to prevent their catch or consumption, but if we stop buying and eating parrotfish, it’s hoped that fishermen will stop catching them and improve their populations.
Then again, this is Jamaica so no problem! You’re on island time. Have a cup of fish soup, enjoy a hearty conversation over beers and check out the beach while you wait. However, the beach is a utilitarian fisherman’s type of beach, so the waves are rough and there are loads of boats dotting the coastline. The sand is dark, almost black, characteristic of south coast beaches. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the view immensely and watched the waves ebb and flow while I not-so-patiently waited for my meal. Smelling other customers’ food while I waited and that salty sea air made me ravenous. To make matters worse, there was no soup available during my wait. They said the soup needed reheating as the wood fire used to cook it was out and it had cooled.. but of course, the only way of reheating it was to light another fire. (Why would they microwave it right?) I literally saw them gather the wood and take it to the kitchen! Something about this simple rustic way of doing things was very satisfying, and dare I say amusing.
And we nuh need sneakers (No)– “Cool As The Breeze/Friday”, Chronixx
Sand grains a massage mi feet, blessing a flow like river
Well, the large pot of soup eventually got hot enough and my small cup (the standard size) for JM$180 was delicious. Two medium fish were ordered, one escoveitch (fried) and the other steamed. They come with one side each but I chose extra sides of half-a-dozen festivals (fried semi-sweet savoury dough) and 2 bammies (cassava cakes). They came up to around $3500JMD. The fried fish was just alright, but the steam fish was amazing! I’d give the fried fish 5/10 and that steamed fish a solid 9/10. However, the ambience deserves a full 10/10. Eating seafood at the source and watching the dying rays of sunlight over the Caribbean Sea with great company was a memorable experience.
Little Ochie is worth the stop once you’re interested in enjoying authentic Jamaican experiences, but I can understand why it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I’d definitely go again but next time, I’ll go with the steamed fish. Perhaps they were having a bad day or rushing orders, but the fried fish wasn’t memorable. Otherwise, Little Ochie reminds me of Jamaica from yesteryear and I thoroughly enjoyed the rustic experience, the gorgeous foamy waves, beautiful black sand and contrasting kaleidoscope of colour provided by the fishermen’s boats, houses and stalls.
P.S. I didn’t actually find out why Evrol Christian chose to name his restaurant Little Ochie, perpetually confusing tourists who think it may be located in or somewhat related to Ocho Rios “Ochi” on the north coast in St. Ann. If you know the reason, let me know in the comments. Also, check out the annual Little Ochie Seafood Festival in July which features various local and regional artistes and attracts patrons from far and wide. Sea, sand, food and music– what could be better than that? 🙂
Happy New Year by the way! ‘Til next time.